Oklahoma may be about to join those states that, in an attempt to sneak creationism and global warming denial into the classroom, will enforce a “let a million criticisms flourish” bill on public school classrooms. The repeated failure of creationists and science denialists to force the teaching of antiscience in the classroom has, as you know, given rise to a new strategy: instead of mandating the teaching of, say, creationism or intelligent design, they try to allow “free criticism” of scientific theories (evolution) in the classroom, with the mandate that students not be penalized for views that contradict accepted science.
As Mother Jones reports, a new bill in the Oklahoma legislature, the “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act” ( HB 1674; free download at link), has passed the education committee by a 9-8 vote and will soon go to the full legislature:
In biology class, public school students can’t generally argue that dinosaurs and people ran around Earth at the same time, at least not without risking a big fat F. But that could soon change for kids in Oklahoma: On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Common Education committee is expected to consider [JAC: as noted above, it passed] a House bill that would forbid teachers from penalizing students who turn in papers attempting to debunk almost universally accepted scientific theories such as biological evolution and anthropogenic (human-driven) climate change.
Gus Blackwell, the Republican state representative who introduced the bill, insists that his legislation has nothing to do with religion; it simply encourages scientific exploration. “I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks,” says Blackwell, who previously spent 20 years working for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. “A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations.”
Stated another way, students could make untestable, faith-based claims in science classes without fear of receiving a poor mark.
Well, first of all, modern evolutionary theory doesn’t explain life by “chance mutations” alone: that’s the old creationist canard that “evolution says everything got here by chance,” like assembling a Boeing 747 by blowing wind through a junkyard. But of course that’s bogus, for complex life (i.e., complex adaptations) arise by a combination of a random process (mutation that creates variation) and a deterministic one (the sorting of that variation via natural selection). The statement shows that Blackwell doesn’t even understand evolution, but is mouthing creationist dogma.
Now as I read the bill (see below), it’s not completely clear whether students really can write papers and give creationist answers without academic penalty, but the intent of the bill is clear: to blur the teaching of real science and superstition in the classroom. It gives teachers free license to “go against what they see in the textbooks”—like evolution.
HB 1674 is the latest in an ongoing series of “academic freedom” bills aimed at watering down the teaching of science on highly charged topics. Instead of requiring that teachers and textbooks include creationism—see the bill proposed by Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin—HB 1674’s crafters say it merely encourages teachers and students to question, as the bill puts it, the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of topics that “cause controversy,” including “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”
Eric Meikle, education project director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, California, says Oklahoma has proposed more anti-evolution legislation than any other state, introducing eight bills with academic freedom language since 2004. (None has passed.) “The problem with these bills is that they’re so open-ended; it’s a kind of code for people who are opposed to teaching climate change and evolution,” Meikle says.
Meikle is right. Let’s look at what the bill says:
A. The Oklahoma Legislature finds that an important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens. The Legislature further finds that the teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.
Note the fields singled out: evolution, the origin of life (often lumped with evolution), global warming, and human cloning (not something often discussed in public-school biology classes). All of these subjects are mentioned because of how they resonate with the faithful.
B. The State Board of Education, district boards of education, district superintendents and administrators, and public school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues. Educational authorities in this state shall also endeavor to assist teachers to find more effective ways to present the science curriculum where it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.
That is, teachers can go against the textbooks, which present accepted science. To me this is the most invidious part of the bill, for it mandates that the teachers themselves will address nonexistent controversies (i.e. whether evolution occurred, whether there’s anthropogenic global warming). This is not just a suggestion, but something that’s mandated. Imagine the confusion that will engender!
C. The State Board of Education, a district board of education, district superintendent or administrator, or public school principal or administrator shall not prohibit any teacher in a school district in this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.
This means, in effect, that teachers won’t be penalized for discussing creationism and intelligent design as viable alternative that address the “scientific weaknesses” of the modern theory of evolution. The same goes for global warming.
D. Students may be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials, but no student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because the student may subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories. Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to exempt students from learning, understanding and being tested on curriculum as prescribed by state and local education standards.
To me, this reads as if students don’t have to believe what they’re tested on, but can still be penalized if their answers on tests or in papers don’t conform to state science standards. And that take doesn’t comport with the opening statement of the Mother Jones piece: “In biology class, public school students can’t generally argue that dinosaurs and people ran around Earth at the same time, at least not without risking a big fat F. But that could soon change for kids in Oklahoma. . . ”
Blackwell’s statement, as reported by Mother Jones, contradicts Mother Jones‘s interpretation, but is still a bit ambiguous:
HB 1674 goes further than a companion bill under consideration in the state Senate by explicitly protecting students, teachers, and schools from being penalized for subscribing to alternative theories. It does, however, say that children may still be tested on widely accepted theories such as anthropogenic climate change. “Students can’t say because I don’t believe in this, I don’t want to learn it,” Blackwell says. “They have to learn it in order to look at the weaknesses.”
While implying that students will be “tested on widely accepted theories,” Blackwell also notes that they won’t be “penalized for subscribing to alternative theories.” But what is an F but a penalty? Or can you subscribe to one theory in your heart but be required to parrot the correct scientific answers? If the latter is the case, then this bill doesn’t do anything new vis-à-vis student behavior, for we never ask students to believe what they must write in their papers or tests; merely demonstrate an understanding of modern science. What worries me more than this is the mandate that teachers must “teach the controversy” when the controversies the bill’s authors have in mind don’t exist.
Finally, in a weaselly attempt to argue that religion isn’t behind all this, the bill has a disclaimer:
E. The provisions of the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act shall only protect the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion. The intent of the provisions of this act is to create an environment in which both the teacher and students can openly and objectively discuss the facts and observations of science, and the assumptions that underlie their interpretation.
What they mean is “hey, folks, don’t think this is religiously and politically motivated, even though it is.” Well, the courts may construe it differently, and let us hope that if this bill is enacted, they will. But let us hope first that the bill won’t get passed, but goes into the legislative dustbin with the eight other bills of this nature that have failed in Oklahoma.
In late January a similar bill was introduced in Indiana, our neighboring state, and in March I’m going there to help fight that one.